My plane touched down on a sunny Sunday in July 2015. The white-whiskered cabbie took my luggage and, with a crinkly smile, exclaimed in English, “Welcome to Sarajevo!” He offered this greeting with no trace of the irony it acquired during the 44-month siege of the city by Serbian nationalist forces that killed 11,500 people between 1992 and 1995.1 On the contrary, he seemed eager to offer a visitor her first glimpse of Sarajevo as it winds through the mountains alongside the Miljacka River. As the city’s red-tiled roofs, steeples, and minarets came into view, he even provided a soundtrack, switching on a CD of Andrea Bocelli’s 1995 hit, “Con Te Partiro.” Perhaps because my mental picture of Sarajevo was based on grim wartime images, the music, combined with the vision of a resurrected city, brought tears.
Travelers are prone to such moments: waves of emotion caused by equal parts imagination, expectation, and (often) naïveté. My naïveté consisted in not seeing certain lingering shadows of past events. For example, 1995 was also the date of the worst mass killing on European soil since World War II. In July of that year, Bosnian Serb forces rolled into Srebenica and neighboring towns in eastern Bosnia,2 and proceeded to kill 8,000 people, most of them Muslim boys and men who had already spent two years in UN-designated “safe areas” described by one early witness as “prison camps.” A few weeks later, those same forces bombed a Muslim enclave in Sarajevo, killing 41 men, women, and children. That was when NATO took the first military action in its history, ordering 338 airstrikes against Bosnian Serb positions.
Given this background, one might expect a seasoned observer—say, a native of Sarajevo who lived through the siege—to look with disdain upon a naïve American choking up over a mushy song that has nothing to do with that ordeal. But this was not the reaction of my traveling companion, Gordana Knezević, a native of Sarajevo who not only lived through the siege but also served as the deputy editor of Oslobođenje, the legendary newspaper whose Serb, Croat, and Muslim staff managed heroically to publish every day of those terrible 44 months. She just smiled as if to say, “That song affects me, too.”
Gordana and I had flown to Sarajevo from Prague, where she was director of the Balkan service at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). She had agreed to accompany me on the second stop in a round-the-world trip I was taking to research best practices for the U.S. Agency for Global Media. This was a great stroke of luck, because as I quickly learned, Gordana is esteemed throughout the region (and the world) for the qualities of character she displayed while helping to keep alive the only trusted source of information in the closed-off, hellish, morally bewildering world of the siege.
Those qualities of character include courage, integrity, shrewdness, gutsiness, persistence, and grace. In combination they constitute what the ancient Greeks meant by sophrosune—in essence, the ability to size up a hard and dangerous situation, and choose the right course of action. This is not just a matter of applying the right principle or rule, because in the hardest situations, principles and rules have a way of conflicting. Rather it is a matter alertness: of reading other people, fathoming their motives, and interpreting the writing on the wall. For Homer, the personification of sophrosune was Odysseus, “expert in adversity.”
After studying philosophy at the University of Sarajevo, Gordana went to work as a reporter for Oslobođenje (“Liberation”), the leading newspaper in Bosnia in the last decades of the Cold War. Founded by anti-fascist Partisans in 1943, Oslobođenje was the official newspaper of the League of Yugoslav Communists, and while that certainly doesn’t fit the American idea of press freedom, it was in fact an excellent training ground, because, as Gordana explained to me, “The Yugoslav media were controlled by the Party, of course. But every now and then a space would open where you could breathe for a while, at least until it closed again.”
Gordana elaborated with an anecdote about a workman who was installing pipes in a group of fancy villas being built for Party members. When the workman discovered that several lengths of pipe were missing, he exposed the shortfall, which was likely due to corruption on the part of various officials, and was promptly fired. Gordana wrote a story about this, in which she observed the Party line that corruption was a bourgeois problem that did not occur in socialist societies. But her editor, a former schoolmate who was also a local Party official, called her in anyway, and asked why she had written the story—what was her purpose? Taking note of the editor’s nervousness about the corruption angle, Gordana replied that her purpose was merely to help the workman get his job back. Which he did.
In 1988 Oslobođenje hired a new editor-in-chief, Kemal Kurspahić, who began the process of transforming it from an official organ of the Communist Party into something more closely resembling a Western news outlet. At first this meant livelier content and features such as sports and entertainment. But with the fall of Communism, it began to mean more. In June 1990, the Bosnian constitutional court ruled in favor of a multiparty system, and Oslobođenje responded by breaking (amicably) with the Communist Party and declaring itself “an Independent Bosnia-Herogovinian Daily,” and promising that during the upcoming election campaign it would “report objectively about the parties’ meetings and make it possible for all the parties to represent their ideas equally.”3
It soon became clear that objective reporting would be nearly impossible, because only one of the three ethnic parties, the Muslim-dominated Party of Democratic Action (SDA), shared Oslobođenje’s editorial position in favor of Bosnian independence as a unified, multi-ethnic state. The other two, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), were opposed to independence, in part because they distrusted the SDA, and in part they identified less with their fellow Bosnians than with their ethnic kin elsewhere. For the Bosnian Croats, that meant Croatia, which was fighting its own battle for independence. For the Bosnian Serbs, it meant the Republic of Serbia, which under Slobodan Milošević was vowing to create a “Greater Serbia” including every part of the Balkans with a sizable Serb population. As a result, neither the HDZ nor the SDS allowed Oslobođenje to cover its meetings or interview its leaders.
By March 1992, this aggressive form of Serb nationalism had sufficiently alienated the Bosnian Croats that, when the question of independence was put to a referendum, they voted strongly in favor of it, along with the Bosnian Muslims.4 It passed, and on April 6, the same day Bosnia’s independence was recognized by the EU, 40,000 Bosnians held a multi-ethnic rally commemorating the liberation of Sarajevo from Nazi occupation in 1945, and calling for a country where “We can live together!” Their jubilation was cut short by gunfire, coming from Serb nationalists barricaded on the other side of the river. The violence escalated the next day, when snipers holed up with SDS leader Radovan Karadžić began shooting people from the upper floors of a Holiday Inn.5
Thus began the siege – and for Oslobođenje, the challenges of providing news to a city sinking rapidly into chaos. One such challenge was dissension among the staff, several of whom were Bosnian Serbs. Indeed, Gordana herself is an ethnic Serb who grew up in Sarajevo and married a fellow philosopher, Ivo Knezević, whose family were Croats from Vienna. During the years when the Knezevićes were raising their three children, Sarajevo was an island of relative freedom and religious tolerance, compared with the ethnic jingoism found elsewhere in Yugoslavia. But it was hardly a bubble: The Knezevićes and people like them grew quite adept at perceiving different shades of ethnic prejudice, from the ordinary animosity that makes life difficult to the murderous hatred that makes it impossible.
This point is important, because at the time of the Bosnian war, many Western officials, especially high-profile members of a foreign policy establishment flush with victory over the Soviet Union, simply assumed that Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians all detested each other in the same way and to the same degree. To be sure, most of these officials were less facetious about it than Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, the Canadian commander of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), who reportedly quipped that the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims were “like three serial killers: one has killed 15, another 10, the other 5. Why would you help the one who killed five?”6
Gordana and her colleagues were grateful to MacKenzie for keeping the Sarajevo airport open during the siege; without that lifeline, Oslobođenje would have ceased publication and the city would have likely have starved. But because Gordana understood the difference between ordinary animosity and murderous hatred, she was troubled by the moral equivalency implied by MacKenzie’s careless remark. This was because, in the words of one close observer, the Canadian journalist Carol Off,
The practical application of moral equivalency in the Balkan wars of the 1990s seems to have started as a way of being impartial and neutral during the conflict. But it eventually morphed into something more sinister … Neutrality probably works in situations where two armies have agreed, grudgingly, to stop killing each other and the foreign troops have come in to guard a negotiated green line… But it’s a lousy device in ethnic cleansing. Neutrality does not work in an arena where you have an aggressor and a victim. To be impartial in that case is to actually take sides, because you inevitably help the aggressor. We did this in the Balkans and it had devastating consequences.7
This is not to suggest that Gordana went to the opposite extreme of painting the Serbs as devils and everyone else as angelic victims. That would have turned Oslobođenje into a propaganda sheet, not a newspaper. But what is an editor supposed to do in such a situation? In 1990, the goal had been to “report objectively … [and] make it possible for all the parties to represent their ideas equally.” But that proved impossible with Serb nationalists calling for the forced expatriation of other groups from what Radovan Karadžić claimed as Serb “living space.” A couple of years later, when the call was for “a black cauldron, where 300,000 Muslims will die,” simple adherence to the journalistic norm of objectivity would have brought its own devastating consequences.
This was when Gordana showed herself a true “expert in adversity.” Without her subtle moral discernment and shrewd editorial judgment, it would have been much harder to steer Oslobođenje between the Scylla of propaganda and the Charybdis of moral equivalency. For example, the Croats and Muslims who rose to Sarajevo’s defense included among their ranks a fair number of criminals, whose motives were decidedly mixed. Throughout the siege, reporters at Oslobođenje heard many credible stories about Croat and Muslim bandits forcibly, sometimes violently, seizing the property and homes of Serbs who had chosen to remain and, in some cases, contribute to the city’s defense.8
If objectivity were the norm, then Gordana would have reported those incidents, along with the daily deaths and injuries caused by Serb bullets, mortars, and artillery shells. But she kept the banditry stories out of the headlines—for a compelling reason. The Bosnian war was very much an information war, and the Serbs were using every possible media outlet to spread lurid, mostly fabricated tales of atrocities committed by Croats and Muslims.9 Gordana feared that, by running true banditry stories, Oslobođenje would lend credence to these Serb fabrications. One could argue, of course, that a responsible newspaper would have run the banditry stories anyway. But Gordana had her eye on the larger situation, which included the disturbing fact that certain Serb fabrications were being taken seriously by the same Western officials who were claiming to seek a political solution to the conflict.10
One of those fabrications involved the mortar attacks of May 27, 1992, in which 22 Sarajevo residents were killed as they stood in line waiting to buy bread. The Serb propaganda machine promptly blamed this on the Bosnian government, which was bad enough. But then, as Off reports, “several members of the international community … helped to disseminate a theory that the attack was planned and performed by the Bosnian government against its own people in an effort to win international sympathy.” Off spent five years investigating this supposed theory and found no evidence to support it. “It’s possible the Bosnians bombed themselves,” she wrote in 2002. “Anything is possible. But given that the Serbs were lobbing as many as 2,000 shells a day into Sarajevo while targeting clearly civilian positions, what seems more likely?” 11
To the obvious question—why would highly placed officials lend any credence to wild claims that the victims of genocide would try to gain sympathy by committing further acts of violence against themselves—Off gives this withering answer: “It was a way of making the sides equal. Thus, not allowing any ‘side’ to have moral superiority.” Calling this “deeply cynical,” she concludes: “The problem with moral equivalency is that people actually start to believe it. It stops being a device and start to serve as an easy truth. A reason not to care.”12
In April 2000, the United Nations issued a report about its own failure, and that of other organizations and governments around the world, to prevent the mass killings that had occurred during the previous decade, not just in the former Yugoslavia but also in Rwanda. The accompanying press release reads as follows: “In its final observations, the Inquiry states that, faced with genocide or the risk of it, the United Nations had an obligation to act transcending traditional peacekeeping principles. There can be no neutrality in the face of genocide, and no impartiality in the face of a campaign to exterminate part of a population.” (emphasis added) 13
This report adds a new and important dimension to the existing UN resolution against genocide, which observed its 70thanniversary in December. But decrees by international bodies can only do so much. Indeed, they bear the same relationship to real decision-making that a map of the Aegean Sea bears to the ten year journey of Odysseus. For Gordana Knezević, journalistic objectivity during the siege of Sarajevo did not mean refusing to take a stand or holding herself above the fray, in the manner of high-minded Western officialdom. Rather it meant taking countless stands, one right after the other, in a situation filled with danger, hunger, sickness, cold, the unending din of bullets and explosions, and the voices of human beings crying in agony, grief, hatred—and, occasionally, love.
 That irony was immortalized when the greeting was used as the title of a 1997 film about an emotionally detached British journalist deciding to take sides and help rescue a group of orphaned children.
 Hereafter referred to as Bosnia.
 Quoted in Tom Gjleten, Sarajevo Daily: A City and Its Newspaper Under Siege (Harper Collins, 1995), p. 65.
 At the time, Croats were 17 percent of the Bosnian population, Muslims 44 percent, and Serbs 31 percent.
 In recounting these and other events, I rely heavily on the superb reporting of Tom Gjelten.
 Quoted in Carol Off, “Doing the Right Thing in an Age of Cynicism,” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Vol. 6, Issue 3 (Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, Winter 2004), pp. 7-8.
 Off, p. 4.
 Perhaps the most famous of these is Gen. Joven Divjak, an officer in the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army (JNA) who changed sides early in the war, joining the Bosnian Territorial Defense forces and eventually becoming a key strategist in the Bosnian resistance. Gordana introduced me to Divjak, who is reviled by Serb nationalists as a “traitor” and “war criminal,” but revered in Sarajevo for having defended the city on principle rather prejudice, and for his devotion to a variety of causes: education for war orphans, help for veterans suffering from PTSD, the repair of schools damaged by floods, full political rights for minorities such as Roma and Jews.
 See Gjelten, pp. 159-162.
 The reader may ask, is it even possible to exercise such finely tuned news judgment in the 21st century, when (along with their many charms) Facebook and other social media display a disturbing power to incite mob violence and even mass killing? Because RFE/RL still has the word “radio” in its name, many see it as an antiquated system out of touch with the digital age. This is a mistake. High on the list of “best practices” I found in the Balkans service under Gordana’s leadership was an adroit use of every existing media platform, from radio to TV to digital to mobile, to reach people in every corner of the region. That includes radio, because as Gordana explained, internet penetration of the region was 55 percent and growing, but people sill listened to the radio in cars (where they spent many hours because the roads are poorly maintained) as well as in cafes, rural areas, and among youth. Indeed, the best service directors in the system are more sophisticated about media than their Western commercial counterparts, who do not even try to reach regions like the Balkans, because the population there is too poor and powerless to interest advertisers.
 Off, pp. 8-9.
 Ibid, pp. 9-10.
 “Chairman of Independent Inquiry into United Nations Actions During 1994 Rwanda Genocide Presents Report To Security Council,” UN Press Release SC/6843 (April 14, 2000).